Kenneth Branagh indulges in the kind of macabre theatricality that only a crumbling Venetian palazzo on a stormy Halloween night can provide in “ A Haunting in Venice. ”
Moviegoers probably long ago made up their mind one way or another about Branagh’s stately and flawed Hercule Poirot franchise, but should there be any curiosity left for this third installment is worth it. It is spooky, fun and features Tina Fey, looking smart and sleek in post-war suits as the fast-talking author of wildly successful whodunnits who says things like “I’m the smartest person I know” in a mid-Atlantic accent.
Set in 1947 on a particularly foggy night in the city of canals, “A Haunting in Venice” is beautiful to look at, with costumes by Sammy Sheldon, production design by John Paul Kelly and cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. And it’s embellished with moody but palatable scares that feel reminiscent of classics like “The Innocents” and “The Others,” that are enhanced by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score. In other words, this might not excite a “Saw” enthusiast, but for the more easily scared and skittish it hits just the right notes.
Agatha Christie takes a bit of a backseat here, as Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green take only the loosest inspiration from her 1969 book “The Hallowe’en Party” for their haunting, firstly by moving it to Venice. It’s where Poirot has chosen to live out his self-imposed retirement (an enviable exile if there ever was one).
His whereabouts are hardly a secret though — desperate folks line up outside of his picturesque apartment hoping he’ll take a stab at their cases. But for now, a handsome Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio) is there to make sure they don’t get close enough to ask.
Fey’s Ariadne Oliver gets through the gates, though, with a different kind of offer: She wants Poirot to accompany her to a séance. This medium, she says, appears to be the real deal and only he’ll be able to figure out if it’s all a trick. Soon he, reluctantly, finds himself at a Halloween party for the city’s orphans, held by a famous opera singer, Rowena, (Kelly Reilly) with a famously dead daughter whom they hope to contact later that evening when the children depart.
Branagh recruited a few of his “Belfast” stars into this ensemble, including Jamie Dornan as doctor still haunted by the war and Jude Hill as his precocious son Leopold. Camille Cottin is a housekeeper, Kyle Allen is the dead girl’s ex-fiancé, and Michelle Yeoh is the theatrical medium Mrs. Reynolds, who seems to be having a grand time chewing the scenery as a possible femme fatale.
It is a distinct shift in tone from the previous films — sadder and more serious, with grief and death everywhere. Even before Alicia’s mysterious death (off a balcony, into the canal with a horrific scrape on her back) the grand palazzo had a body count: It’s where doctors are said to have locked up children to die during the plague.
And this crew is in for a long, stormy, claustrophobic night with finger pointing, more deaths and some inexplicable phenomena at play. Poirot’s existential crisis is probably the least interesting aspect of the whole thing, despite its centrality to the plot, but Branagh doesn’t waste too much of his time diving into those self-indulgent waters.
Maybe Branagh should have been leaning more into horror this whole time with this franchise. Or maybe it’s a case of underestimating a director whose work is prolific and not always personal. It can be hard to take stock of a filmmaker’s career when they’ve made great Shakespeare and Cinderella adaptations as well as “Thor” and “Artemis Fowl.”
But it’s always a pleasant surprise when it works as “A Haunting in Venice” very much does.
“A Haunting in Venice,” a 20th Century Studios release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.